A keffiyeh on her head and the Lebanese flag in her hand, Cerine Bader was out on the streets with a mission: to join a revolution against the political elite whom she saw as corrupt, inefficient, and self-serving. She was among thousands of others who had gathered at Martyrs Square in Beirut, the heart of the protests that started in October and took place a short walk from the city’s historic port, now reduced to ashes.
The cataclysmic explosion on August 4 blew plumes of grey and orange smoke into the sky and sent pressure waves rolling across the city from the port. It swallowed whole neighborhoods, shaking the city’s foundations and sending residents flying across their apartments as if with a magic wand.
The catastrophe triggered new protests, and although Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government had resigned Monday, the protestors promised to continue.
They said their battle was not against one government, but the whole system, a political substructure controlled and propagated by sectarian parties led by politicians, many of them civil war-era warlords, as well as armed actors like Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia acting as a state within a state.
Lebanon officials said fireworks had caught ablaze nearby and caused 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse to explode. The blast left more than 170 people dead and 6,000 injured, and displaced 300,000 people from damaged or destroyed homes.
Blaming the government
Cerine and many Lebanese believe the real reason for the explosion was not the fireworks that set off the nitrate, but what they say is incompetence and government indifference to repeated warnings from port officials of the dangers inherent to storing the material in the heart of the city.
“We are here to protest against the mass massacre committed by our leaders,” she told VOA on Saturday, as she stood among a large crowd chanting anti-government slogans. “This government and previous governments and their sectarian masters are responsible for the blast. They knew ammonium nitrate should not be stored in such large amounts and certainly not near residential areas and yet they did nothing to dispose of it.”
Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s president, has led a governmental response that to many, appeared to lack empathy. Aoun, in an initial broadcast, tried to blame hostile forces - possibly Israel - despite a lack of any evidence. “The cause has not been determined yet,” Aoun told the local press, saying there could have been a “rocket or bomb or other act.”
Since then, documents leaked to the media have shown a chain of events from the nitrate’s impounding from a ship in 2013 to its explosion on Tuesday, indicating at least some officials knew it was there all along.
Badri Daher, the director-general of Lebanese Customs now under detention, told Lebanese television broadcaster LBCI he had requested the ammonium nitrate be re-exported, “but it did not happen,” he said. “We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why.”
Follow-up reports including a firsthand account by a port employee in The Guardian also claimed that some of the employees at the port had raised concerns but confronted with an unresponsive system felt helpless.
Some of the protestors directed their wrath at Hezbollah, which is both a militia and a political party, accusing it of at best turning a blind eye and at worst leaving the nitrate there deliberately, for future purposes.
“Everyone controls the port and they are all corrupt, but Hezbollah controls all of them. How could they let this happen?” asked Amal, who came from the Bekaa Valley to protest.
Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, said the port explosion threatens to become a catalyst for disillusionment against Hezbollah, which many in Lebanon until recently - even outside its core Shia community - regarded as a part of the national fabric and a shield against Israel. "It is true that Hezbollah controls the port more than anyone else because they control all strategic assets,” he said. “But this is also a big geo-strategic blow to Hezbollah and its credibility as a force protecting Lebanon, which is what it claims it is."
Nader notes that protesters are demanding it be a panel of international experts who investigate the explosion. “Those whom the people suspect to be complicit in the crime cannot be in charge of the investigation,” he said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) recommended the same. It said that local and international rights groups have documented a nexus between the judiciary and the politicians for years, and the group also criticizes what it says is a lack of judicial independence in Lebanon.
“Given the Lebanese authorities’ repeated failure to investigate serious government failings and the public’s distrust of government institutions, an independent investigation with international experts is the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at HRW.